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Anniston Star: New Flyer Unveils Innovation Center in Anniston
Oct. 12–An Anniston bus manufacturer opened a $4.1 million center Thursday to design and build new electric and driverless vehicle technology.
New Flyer, the largest transit bus manufacturer in North America, held an opening ceremony at its Vehicle Innovation Center, located next to the company’s Anniston manufacturing plant. Part engineering hub and part museum and training center, the facility is New Flyer’s push toward furthering its zero emission vehicle standards, while creating cheaper, safer transportation across the country, company officials say.
More than 100 community leaders, New Flyer employees, company partners and transit industry officials turned out Thursday for the opening. New Flyer gave tours of the center’s educational exhibits and training areas, which included a bus driving simulator, examples of current battery technology, electric motors and charging stations. Upstairs houses the engineering and research sections.
Wayne Joseph, New Flyer transit bus president, said the center was the first of its kind for the bus industry in North America.
“This center will lead development of the future of transit technology, including autonomous driving and electric systems … and it’s all designed and developed right here in Anniston,” Joseph said. “We look forward to making a positive impact on the community and on innovation and jobs.”
Paul Soubry, president and CEO of New Flyer Group, said the center was a live, progressive place to learn, educate and share knowledge.
“We’re not waiting for the future to happen, we’re making it happen,” Soubry said.
Nathaniel Ford, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association, said the New Flyer center was at the forefront of change in the industry.
“Our industry is facing the most transformative time in a generation,” Ford said. “This is where training and education will take place not just for New Flyer, but the entire industry.”
Q&A with New Flyer executives
Before the opening Thursday of New Flyer’s Vehicle Innovation Center, The Star spoke with Chris Stoddart, the company’s senior vice president of engineering and David Warren, director of sustainable transportation, on details about the innovation center, the work that would be done there and New Flyer’s plans and goals.
What types of battery technology will you be researching?
Stoddart: We’ve been significantly interested in new battery technology since 2011. We remain really focused on researching every type of heavy-duty battery … we’re focused on lithium battery technology and have partnered with two companies right now, rendering new generations of batteries every 18 months.
The electric buses we’re readying for 2019, those will have 300 miles of range. Our battery-powered buses now, ones that are 40 feet long have a range of 230 miles and those that are 60 feet long have a range of 200 miles.
Our first pure battery bus was built in 2012 … we’ve built over 6,000 transit buses with batteries and electric motors.
What are the current challenges faced in making more cost-effective, electric buses?
A challenge used to be price, but after a few years costs have gone down, but now the challenge is having infrastructure to charge the batteries. When the buses come home to the depot they can charge overnight, but they need more opportunities to charge in the middle of their routes. Also, to date there hasn’t been standards for charging stations in the industry, but now those are converging and the industry is on track to publish standards in 2018.
What else goes into designing a feasible electric bus besides better batteries?
Stoddart: The propulsion system is a slice of the pie; you want to have a very purposely built … system that works in a heavy-duty transit environment for 12-plus years.
You also want more efficient electric motors and power components and you want to ensure you put the batteries on the bus in such a manner that you can still have a full complement of passengers.
When designing the structure of the Xcelsior, our latest electric bus, we went through great pains to create a lightweight structure, using composite panels, like plastics and fiberglass.
Five years ago, we had a major lightweight initiative for the Xcelsior and we achieved a weight reduction of 4,000 pounds.
New Flyer has been using electric buses for years, but how far along is the company with autonomous bus research?
Warren: There are five levels to autonomous technology: the first level is driver assistance, the second is partial automation, third is conditional automation, fourth is high automation and the fifth level is full automation.
Stoddart: We’re on a 10-year journey to get to level five.
Warren: We are currently in Level 1 and 2 and some examples of that would be antilock braking and stability controls. Level 2 gets into automated braking. We’re currently trying to map out the technological roadmap, while currently evaluating Level 2.
What technologies are used in making a fully autonomous bus?
Stoddart: You need cameras, radar and lasers, then you need controllers to make inputs like how to steer, how to brake and how to accelerate. We’re going to partner with significant suppliers to integrate those technologies.
What are some of the challenges in designing an autonomous bus?
Warren: Another challenge is making this technology work on buses that are 19 feet long, 18 feet long and 60 feet long.
If New Flyer does make fully autonomous buses one day, will that make bus drivers obsolete?
Warren: Our view is that there will always be a bus operator on board who will always play a role in public transit. This technology journey we’re on is based on improving safety and efficiency.
Will New Flyer’s bus technology ever become available for smaller transit systems like in Anniston?
Warren: I think that when the volume of production of zero-emission buses is where you can set up an entire manufacturing system … and with the cost of batteries on a declining scale … absolutely there is no reason why smaller, more rural communities can’t take advantage one day.
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